Black at Bryn Mawr

The Greenfield Digital Center is currently supporting the work of three students undertaking Praxis III independent study projects exploring lesser-known aspects of Bryn Mawr College history. This week, two of those students — Grace Pusey and Emma Kioko, both Class of 2015 — are formally launching their research project, Black at Bryn Mawr. Readers can stay up-to-date with their research via the Black at Bryn Mawr blog and tumblr. Today, Grace shares the origins of the project, and its goals.

This semester Emma Kioko and I are collaborating on a Praxis III independent study course titled Black at Bryn Mawr, a project that will illuminate the history and experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff at the College. Using Bryn Mawr Special Collections as well as primary sources archived outside of the College, we are analyzing the ways in which Bryn Mawr has chosen to record, remember, and represent racism in its history. Using the archives, we are identifying spaces of both racial conflict and conversation on campus in order to develop a final project in the form of a campus walking tour and a digital historical record.

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“I’m not a historian but I am interested in people’s stories”: Lianna Reed ’14 reflects on working on Bryn Mawr College oral histories

In this guest post by Lianna Reed ’14, you can learn more about the digitization of the oral history collection held by the Special Collections department of Bryn Mawr College. As part of its work, The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education is converting the audio tapes into digital files which will eventually be hosted on the Tri-College digital repository site, Triptych.

Previously, student worker Isabella Barnstein worked on the project and wrote about her experiences. We are further along with the work now and finding out more and more about alums from the past. Some of the material has been used in our Taking Her Place exhibition which can be linked to by scanning QR codes on certain labels. These include the 1935 radio broadcast by M. Carey Thomas and interviews with faculty, staff and students in the past (you can find them by clicking this link to our site). The exhibition runs until June 2nd and after this it will be made available as a digital exhibit on our site so make sure to visit the digital exhibitions section of the site ….

Guest blogger and Special Collections student worker, Lianna Reed '14.

Guest blogger and Special Collections student worker, Lianna Reed ’14.

I have been working on the oral history project with The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education for three months and not only have I learned how to digitize cassette tapes to mp3 files but I have also been absorbed into the lives of Bryn Mawr women from ten, twenty even eighty years ago.  I’m not a history major or English major, in fact my academic work doesn’t usually relate to my work with Special Collections. I actually appreciate this difference because working here is a release from my academic life as a double major in Political Science and French. I get to come to work and listen to alumnae talk about their time as students in the 1940s, sneaking out of the dorms past curfew (10pm) and going to the cemetery down the road. I become immersed in the details of women who became renowned archaeologists, politicians, activists, tutors, and the list goes on and on. Oral histories are an interesting form of history because they involve someone else, usually the interviewer, prompting the interviewee to respond to certain questions. However with Bryn Mawr women, these questions are often disregarded as the women believe that they themselves aren’t interesting. I have heard so many women say “Oh, you don’t want to hear about that. It isn’t interesting.” Actually, most things are interesting, especially anecdotal commentary. Even when the women describe how challenging Bryn Mawr was and their feelings about not using the degree, prompting them to feel unworthy of their degree, it is interesting and valuable for the history archives and also for those of us that are soon to be graduates.

My first oral history was my most memorable. Fleta Blocker was a bell maid in Radnor who came to Bryn Mawr as a teenager on the recommendation of her sisters. Too young to work she was put on staff for a trial year before she was hired permanently.  Fleta would end up working for forty years at Bryn Mawr College. Honored as one of the longest serving employees at Bryn Mawr, Fleta wasn’t just a bell maid, she was a friend and a student herself at Bryn Mawr. Fleta saw more change and development at Bryn Mawr than anyone else. But what does it means for Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections digital archives to have Fleta’s interview? Who will listen to her tell her story? Who will understand what it meant to her and, of course, the students, to have her there in the dorm? While Fleta’s interview is linked on the website of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education and featured in the Taking Her Place exhibition and we can track who listens and in what language, we can’t always know how they might understand Fleta’s time at Bryn Mawr in the college’s history. Maybe oral histories are like podcasts and while you can’t force anyone to listen to them, they are an integral piece of history that is accessible, not just for the Bryn Mawr community but for the community of women’s education around the world. Faculty are always celebrated for their accomplishments and their connections with publically accomplished students, but what about the other people who supported and encouraged students to become the people they are remembered to be?

What does working on this project mean for me? As I said I am not a historian but I am interested in people’s stories. I am interested in doing research in sub-Saharan Africa on the effects of transitional and restorative justice. Oral histories are one of the most important forms of archival material that we have as humans. Oral tradition is the way we know and remember songs, family history, and recipes we love to cook. Oral history and oral tradition help to clarify the ways in which restorative justice has impacted the lives of many. For example, the gacaca courts in Rwanda are an oral tradition that are both a method of enacting justice and also a form of history as the plaintiffs, witnesses and criminals participate in an open dialogue. These histories are invaluable to the success and development of Rwanda in the present day. I hope that after having listened to hundreds of different interviews from people reluctant to talk and people more than enthusiastic at Bryn Mawr I will be prepared for whatever might come my way in the field. When I am out in the field I can gather information necessary to create a dialogue, not only amongst those I am interviewing but also with the wider international community producing a discourse that gathers many people’s individual stories, much like the archives at Special Collections at Bryn Mawr College.

‘Primary sources have the potential to help teachers in the classroom’: Temple student Adrian Wieszczyk on her experiences at Bryn Mawr

This blog post has been written by Adrian Wieszczyk, a student at Temple University who is currently completing her training to become a high school teacher. Adrian is one of three students this year who used our collections as part of the National History Day Philly Cultural Collaboration Initiative. As with our other participants, we thank Adrian for her hard work and wish her all the best with completing her studies!

My name is Adrian Wieszczyk and I am a student at Temple University. I have had the pleasure to work with Bryn Mawr College this semester through a field work internship. Through my experience I have felt very welcomed and aware of the resources and tools that Bryn Mawr provides, due to the helpful staff. As a result, I have discovered primary documents within the special collections that have potential to help teachers use primary documents within their classroom. The intended outcome of this internship through Temple was to introduce me to working with museums or archives as a future teacher and become more aware of resources provided. As for Bryn Mawr, my project was to create a lesson plan for their website using documents within their special collections. I believe that this project is very helpful for teachers, considering many teachers are unable to look through the rich resources and documents that institutions carry.

My particular focus was the female culture and role in the Prohibition era. I chose this topic because I found a few interesting documents that were published in Bryn Mawr’s Lantern of 1922-24 that discussed different perspectives and beliefs about the Prohibition. Unfortunately, I was unable to discover all of the documents and resources on the prohibition because of the time restraint but I was still able to take advantage of the documents I did find. My finalized project is a lesson plan called women in the prohibition. This lesson teaches the different organizations and cultures of females during the prohibition. For instance, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Women’s Organization for Prohibition Reform, and the cultural perspective of a “Flapper“. I really enjoyed researching these organizations as well as creating a lesson plan to further student’s knowledge of the female role in the prohibition.

Overall this experience has furthered my knowledge and skills as a student and as a future teacher. I have enjoyed developing relationships with the staff at Bryn Mawr as they have been extremely welcoming and helpful. I have learned a great deal about Bryn Mawr and other institutions in regards to getting involved as a future teacher. This knowledge will help me as I create lesson plans for my classroom and use the resources and primary documents that institutions, like Bryn Mawr College, carry and provide. I look forward to keeping in contact with Bryn Mawr College and using their digital archives to improve my upcoming lessons.



Reflecting on the place of single-sex education today, Emily Adams ’14 says ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way’…

Emily Adams, Bryn Mawr College Class of 2014

In this post, guest blogger Emily Adams, BMC ’14 reflects on the issue of single-sex education, arguing for the necessity to examine the corporeality of femininity in its fullest sense. Drawing on an essay she wrote for The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education Undergraduate Essay Competition this year, Emily explores her thoughts on the often contentious topic of single-sex education today.

Emily Adams is an English major with minors in Russian and Spanish. She has spent the summer interning at a non-profit mental health organization in San Francisco. This fall she will be studying abroad in St. Petersburg.

Feminine Bodies: The Physical Presence of Women’s Colleges

The world is consumed with interest in female bodies. They serve as a constant source of fascination, revulsion, concern and controversy. In pregnancy and childbirth, women’s bodies are worshipped as the origin of life. Through miscarriage, they are condemned as scapegoats for premature death. Nearly ninety percent of those who suffer from eating disorders are women. Teenage girls worldwide are more likely to engage in self-injury than any other demographic. Through Eve, women are even blamed for the genesis of shame and the subsequent covering of the human body. It is clear from these statements that, in much of the world, prospects for women are not overly optimistic. However, at a handful of colleges across the nation, women have been working for over a century to overturn Eve’s sin and reclaim the female form.

It would be absurd to believe that women’s colleges are free from these body-centric obsessions, that the mere existence of a single-sex environment somehow transforms an institution into a secure bubble in which all of the world’s ills can be cured. Single-sex colleges serve, not as a protective sphere to shield students from these issues, but as a stable center from which to confront them. For a young woman leaving high school, undoubtedly self-conscious about her body and her mind, it is an incredible experience to enter a women’s college, a place where every classmate, every friend, and every leader on that campus is another young woman in the process of self-discovery like herself. It is life-changing. The greatest education students of these institutions receive is in coming to accept the female body not only as the center of great suffering, but also unimaginable grace, beauty, and strength.

Studying at a women’s college means being able to lift weights in the gym without competing with male bodybuilders. It means walking into any class, whether it’s computer science or French literature, and knowing you won’t be the only woman. It means being certain that your peers will not take your gender into account when evaluating the merit of your opinions. It means watching the Vagina Monologues and later discussing at the dinner table which monologue rang true for you. Would these conversations take place at co-ed schools? Possibly. Would they invoke the same levels of pride, honesty, and sincerity? Probably not.

A single-sex education means being surrounded by bright, passionate, involved women— not just in classrooms, but at work, at mealtimes, and in the dorms. It means entering into an enormous sisterhood which extends across all fifty states and most nations of the world, which encompasses several generations of intellectual women and will hopefully grow to include several more in the coming years. It means realizing in the middle of a lecture that, one hundred years ago, a young woman just like you was sitting in that same chair — learning just as you are, rediscovering herself in new and fantastic ways like you — and taking a moment to bask in the glory of our collective history.

For that woman, as well as the millions who have come before and after her in the history of women’s education, every day of her college career was a celebration of her femininity. The simple fact of being at a school filled entirely with women was an affirmation of the power of her gender. She greeted every day with the realization that she was surrounded by people who understood and appreciated what it means to be a woman, what it costs to be female in a male world, and what it takes to change that world for the better. And whether all of those women went on to be rocket scientists or mothers or both, they carried that knowledge with them for the rest of their lives. They knew that, just as their gender should never define them, it should also never be forgotten. They never forgot, and neither will we.

With that in mind, I declare that to live as a woman is the most difficult and most beautiful way to live, and that to spend four years learning with other women is the very best way to understand what that means. I, along with countless others, wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Process, memory and form: exploring the spoken and the written word in the Bryn Mawr College collections

This post is brought to you by Amanda Fernandez (’14) who has been working as a project assistant in Special Collections throughout the summer, specializing in digitizing material for The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. Here she reflects on the difference between digitizing and transcribing oral and written records, both of which illuminate the lives of alums in the past, finding frustrations and fascinations again in comparing epistolary and oral practices in recording memory and interpreting impressions from the past ….


Summer being almost through, most student workers still happily off at their summer destinations, clinging to what remains of sweet summer and denying the soon to come scholastic year, I have stayed and carried on with my letter transcribing here in Special Collections. In addition to this, in order not to find myself enveloped (no pun intended) in a monotonous workflow, which would eventually incite distaste towards the project (as well as M. Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett), I have taken up another task. The project, which once belonged to Isabella Bartenstein (who is now happily gallivanting about Avignon!), involves listening to and digitizing a collection of interviews of alumna and long retired staff, all in order to compile a digitized collection of the Oral History Project. The project started in 1960 and was an active effort on behalf of the Alumnae Association to collect personal accounts of students’ and staff members’ experiences at Bryn Mawr and how it affected their lives.  In 1981, the OHP became more of a collaborative project when the paper work and cassettes were moved to the archives. Caroline Rittenhouse (BMC class of 1952) conducted many of the later interviews and directed the project when she became the College Archivist in 1987. The transferring of these audio tracks from the ancient medium of cassette tape to mp3 on a digital recorder by means of a tangle of wires that turn my workspace into jungle, can be tedious or thrilling, depending on the entertainment and interest value of the interview as a whole. Some of the most interesting interviews turn out to sound more like conversations which is suggested against in the general interview guidelines but, is almost entirely inevitable considering that the dialogue usually occurs between two alums.

I’ve found that audio recorded interviews relay much more information than the hand-written letter does. Letters, more specifically the letters that I have been transcribing, are not capable of lending me as accurate an insight into M. Carey Thomas as would an interview I think.  In transcribing and reading the letters, I tend to peel out my own conclusions—imposing my assumptions in order to erect the shadows of two people and a dramatic exchange draped over their correspondence. To be honest, I have gone as far as judging M.C.T. for the way she’s dotted her i’s.  In retrospect, something seems obviously askew in that practice—how could I understand enough about the culture of written narrative (which entails so many variables; structure, etiquette and subsequent tone, the relationship between the addressed and the addressee etc.) in that time and setting to  mold detailed personalities? I could also draw illusory conclusions from an audio recorded interview if the interviewee is putting on a ‘persona’—but even then, the intuition developed in perception of sound gives the theatrics away.

In listening to interviews I am depending on the human memory—which does not have a reputation for accuracy or precision, especially with the wear and tear of time. Experiences are subjective and the ‘singed’ memories thereafter are much like the newspaper clippings I find attached to letters; they yellow and tear here and there, the paper thins out and sometimes the words that were once clipped for their current relevancy in that time are now relevant in another upon being re-read—sometimes completely transformed by new perception that has been changed much in the same way as the physical clipping. We know that each person will recreate scenarios and memories according to the way they perceive and process—these interviews are unique in that memories are sewn together—memories most times compared and sometimes even confirmed. The exchange of sound waves seems to solidify the person that in letters appears just as a shadow; we are able to build a more three dimensional personality in our heads, we sense their stories in sound, the tone and expression being audible and creating a clearer picture.

Most of the interviews, if not all, are based on a standardized interview format—meaning that each of the interviewers are asking the same questions. Some interviewers ask the interviewee to expand, or they turn the interview into more of a dialogue where one relates to the other, prompting a more enthusiastically responsive and detailed answer. I guess interviews also depend on commonalities and relationship—what the interviewer can draw from the interviewee depends very much on what they have in common in regards to their experience at Bryn Mawr which would allow for the best and most informative dialogue—this also limits the interview in a situation where there is no familiarity. The most intriguing interviews I’ve heard thus far are those that have evolved into conversation due to the binding induced by commonality—such as one between two alums who were both raised by alums. In this exchange they share not only their own experiences (as one time students at BMC as well as what it was like being raised by BMC alums) but also the BMC memories transmitted to them by their mothers. At certain times throughout the recording, I caught the presence of four, each alum and her mother’s memory.

Through these tapes I have also confirmed my own faith in the long standing reputation of exceptional characters that proceeds Mawrters, women that  exceed expectation and burst out of the restrictions imposed on them by the social codes of their time. This was clear to me in most of the interviews, but particularly in two, the interview of Katharine Fowler Billings (class of 1925) who became an accomplished and renowned Geologist in the 1920’s when it was practically unheard of for a woman to take up such a profession.

An article on her pioneering work appears here on the GeoScience World site.

Isabel Benham

The second was of Isabel Benham who scraped and clawed her way as an independent woman on Wall Street starting in the 1930’s and I could not help but tear up a bit when she remarked, “Bryn Mawr taught you you were the best that there was and you can do anything you want.” Isabel was even dubbed the ‘Mother Superior’ of Wall Street (go to Link to Isabel Benham’s College Yearbook). In both of their interviews, their voices resounded with enthusiasm despite the distance of years from their time at the college and good humor.

Aside from what I have learned from the nature of the medium of audio, I am assured by the content of these interviews that Bryn Mawr women grow to be ‘defy-ers’ of their time.


“People today wonder whether a single-sex education is still a relevant institutional environment…” Wendy Chen, BMC ’14 reflects on single-sex education in the 21st century.

In this post, guest blogger Wendy Chen, BMC ’14 reflects on the issue of single-sex education in the twenty-first century. Drawing on an essay she wrote for The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education Undergraduate Essay Competition, Wendy reveals why she thinks it’s important to keep reflecting on single-sex education and studying at a women’s college today.

As an undergraduate student majoring in the History of Art and minoring in Economics, I decided to enter this essay competition as a way to reflect on what I’ve learned from attending a single-sex institution. When I look back on the period prior to the emergence of radical feminist movements in the 1960’s, women today have attained more rights and liberties compared to women who lived through the historical period of patriarchal dominance. People today wonder whether a single-sex education is still a relevant institutional environment, as some may think that single-sex institutions merely exacerbate gender stereotypes and inflate sexist attitudes. But I believe that is a general misconception people have about single sex institutions, and that the option of being able to choose single sex schools should still be available for individuals interested in learning about existing gender norms and female empowerment.

A single sex institution is a unique environment where one is made aware of the heterosexual dichotomy between males and females, femininity and masculinity. This past semester I had an extremely rewarding experience in Professor Saltzman’s contemporary art history class where we talked about the body politic in relation to performativity. We had the privilege of reading Gender Trouble and listening to Judith Butler’s enlightening theories on the “gender performative”. It changed my notion of “gender” as an irreducibly, fixed truth and I began to view gender as of more of an expression, a social performance. Butler defines gender to be a “repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler, Gender Trouble, 45). I now understand “gender” to be socially constructed and linguistically reinforced. The societal practice of vicious regulating gender norms can sometimes lead to the victimization and discrimination of individuals who do not conform to the binary categories, and are in the end deprived of their rights. It is why women in many impoverished, developing countries are still oppressed by men and why homosexuals and transsexuals are deemed as secondary citizens. For example, in Afghanistan, women are still considered deeply inferior to males to the point where parents have to masquerade their girls as boys because sons are more highly valued in society. Obama’s recent announcement for his endorsement on gay-marriage is being criticized because society’s notion of gender is still heavily influenced by the regulatory systems of the heterosexual dichotomy.

In art history class, Butler’s readings break down these gender binaries by conveying the need for a permanent end to the policing and ordering of gender. Even in Professor Rock’s environmental economics class, I learned the importance of combating gender norms and promoting women’s empowerment and education. Countries such as Afghanistan have been shown to have a problem of overpopulation due to young marriage ages and high fertility rates which affects women’s chances for education. It is through being in an institutional environment that advocates female empowerment, and taking academically enriching courses that help me learn about the pervasive nature of gender ordering, that I realize at Bryn Mawr College we are not celebrating the differences between genders. I feel that we are unraveling the social construction of ‘gender’ and throwing it out the door completely.


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From frustration to fascination

Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Archives

By: Amanda Fernandez, BMC 2014
Transcribing the letters of M. Carey Thomas has been, at least, an interesting experience. In the beginning of my work, which consisted and consists still of transcribing Thomas’ many personal letters to Mary Garrett, her good ‘friend’ and supposed lover, I found myself tangled in her Ramen-like script, frazzled by her tendency to close her letters or conclude post scripts by writing vertically over the already horizontally written text, and endlessly confused by her inconsistent punctuation. I was also simultaneously thrilled—to be holding these letters written by a figure well known to me as well as all Bryn Mawr students from the day we step on campus as prospective students. The letters that imply so much more than what is explicitly expressed, becoming to me through the process of transcription living documents.  I also wondered as to how these personal letters were relevant to the Greenfield project—one focusing on compiling a digitized collection of resources regarding the history of women’s education which I assumed would exclusively want more of Thomas’ academic papers and proceedings. As I transcribed, which requires reading the content closely especially in the case of these letters, I found that before there is contribution, there is character. That is to say that it is crucial to understand the driving ambition and persistence of M. Carey Thomas which was essential in leading up to her contributions to women’s education and particularly women’s place in the early history of their higher education. These letters, despite their personal tone, definitely capture Thomas’ personality and shine a lot of light on a character that I found, as a current student, has transcended time in this small space.

On campus there is a generic perception of M. Carey Thomas—her ghost lingers within the confines of the cloisters where her ashes are spread, she curls her ghostly toes in Taft fountain, which was once the exclusive Deanery garden.

The Deanery

She stares down sternly from her portrait in Thomas Great Hall, the lead image for this post. Everyone on campus knows about M. Carey Thomas. She’s a legend and someone that over time has been transformed into a fantastical concept. It isn’t difficult to see why M. Carey Thomas to me was just an idea, an elusive aura—and I never bothered to explore why and how Thomas had managed to leave such a lasting impression. I see now in my close readings that Thomas initially became an idealized figure for having been a woman who from a very young age fought tirelessly to no end for her right and the rights of all women to receive an education if not equal to then superior to that of men. Her letters reveal the details of Thomas happily struggling to attain her own education alongside her close group of friends, which included Mary Garrett. As much as she is a well-known figure on the campus where she became the first woman to be a college president—no one here really knows what she stood for and how her personality still impacts this community. This first struck me as I stared into the John Singer Sargent painting of Thomas in Canaday’s Gallery, noting her strong brow and unrelenting glare. In other portraits of famous ladies painted by Sargent, the women painted are surrounded by opulence and props that clearly allude to their wealth and status. Thomas’ portrait portrays her in the traditional academic robe with an indigo sash—all effective in conveying Thomas’ identity as a strong faced academic woman who meant business, something unheard of in her time. This is an identity that continues to live on this campus—the archetype for what constitutes the ‘Bryn Mawr Woman’ is founded on the character of Thomas, one who would not accept ‘no’ for an answer and who would almost always compromise, if it was to her convenience.

The Friday Night Club

I believe that even our sense of community working for the empowerment of each other, with each other, is one derived from Thomas’ own model of sorority with her group of friends with whom she met every Friday (and is referred to in her letters as “Friday Nights”) where politics and reform were discussed and a course of action was plotted.  The way that Thomas refers to these meetings and the serious and passionate tone she takes on when addressing this group of friends is still the tone that thrives in our everyday interactions with one another on this campus.

In reading Thomas’ letters there is a sense of her that is very different from the mysterious identity imposed on her by time and forgetfulness. She is more than a figurehead—more than a magical time-transcending aura that permeates anything and everything Bryn Mawr. Digitizing these letters is vital to reinstating Thomas’ personhood—bringing to life the reality of her personality in the light of her contributions. Coming in contact with these letters has made the distance that surrounds M.C. Thomas become a little bit shorter every pen mark I familiarize myself with—and I hope that by expanding accessibility this distance can be bridged for others.

“Educate a man for manhood, a woman for womanhood, both for humanity. In this lies the hope of the race”

As a student worker in Special Collections, I get the opportunity to do a lot of interesting research. Presently, I’m working on research that will contribute to an exhibition in 2013, and as part of this I have been reading about different topics from the late 19th century on women and education.

I’ve done some relevant coursework, Professor Elliott Shore’s History of Bryn Mawr being the most relevant, but also a sociology course entitled “Women, the Body, and Society”. But I never really delved as deep into the research as I have for this exhibition. For instance, did you know that many 19th century doctors were convinced that women were incapable of developing their brains and their reproductive organs simultaneously? Perhaps it’s a sort of hold-over from the more medieval concept of balancing humors.

There are two major contemporary texts on the issue that I have been reading side by side: Dr. Edward Hammond Clarke’s Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, published in 1873 and the provocative reply by Julia Ward Howe entitled Sex and Education, published in 1874. (Special Collection owns copies of both- in excellent condition- but they can also be found online using Google Books and a digital archive of Julia Ward Howe’s works and letters can be found here

Dr. Clarke’s book came first and was a leading text used in the fight against women’s higher education. Clarke argues there are physiological reasons that boys and girls cannot be educated together, in the same way: “The physiological motto is: Educate a man for manhood, a woman for womanhood, both for humanity. In this lies the hope of the race.” (Clarke 19) A good portion of the argument revolves around reproduction – if women do not develop their sex organs properly, they cannot continue making babies.

But don’t men have sex organs that need developing too, Dr. Clarke? “The growth of [the uterus and ovaries] occurs during the first few years of a girl’s educational life. No such extraordinary task, calling for such rapid expenditure of force, building up such a  delicate and extensive mechanism within the organism, — a house within a house, an engine within an engine, — is imposed upon the male physique at the same epoch.” (Clarke 37-38) The modern day equivalent, I think, would be a mansplaining, backhanded compliment: women are too complicated, too delicate, and we should just let the men take care of difficult matters.

Howe’s book is a rather clever response to the seemingly simple argument posed by Dr. Clarke. For her book, Howe collected the views and opinions of male and female writers, doctors, and academics on the subject of women’s education, reasoning against every one of Clarke’s arguments. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the contributors, systematically criticized Clarke’s lack factual evidence and faulty methodology, calling for “facts as to American-born women of different races” (p. 38), “the comparative physiology of different social positions” (p. 39), “an extensive record of individual instances” (p. 40), and an “account of the physiological benefits of education for women” (p. 41). He, and other authors included in the text, were sure that if studied without bias, no differences across gender lines would arise.

One of the most interesting moments for me in reading this text was Howe’s assessment of social causes for the physiological disorders that Clarke cites. “… By far the most frequent difficulty with our women arises from uterine displacement, and this in turn comes partly from the utter disuse of the muscles which should keep the uterus in place, but which are kept inactive by the corset, weighed upon by the heavy skirt, and drawn upon by the violent and unnatural motion of the dancing at present in vogue.” (Howe 29) She briefly discusses the idea of challenging the norms, but relents: “[the opinion that] ‘we are only women, and it does not matter,’ passes from mother to daughter. A very estimable young lady said to me the other day, in answer to a plea for dress-reform, ‘It is better to look handsome, even if it does shorten life a little.’ …” (Howe 28) I think what shocked me most about this was how little things seem to have changed: I suppose there always has been, and always will be, a desire for everyone (women in particular) to look a certain way as dictated by society, regardless of the health effects.

It has certainly been an interesting endeavor for me to think very critically about the position of women and women’s education, and how it has changed. At the time these texts were written, most women did not have access to higher education, and those who did often were criticized heavily for their pursuits. Now, women comprise the majority of college students, though are still underrepresented in many professional fields and graduate level education. But the feminist argument of the time was to support co-education of men and women to ensure that women received the same quality education that men did.

Yet here I sit: the product of four years of a women’s college, a female-dominated environment, and I don’t feel that I’ve been cheated out of any quality where my education is concerned. Could Clarke have been onto something when he counseled against co-education? In my opinion – Howe, Higginson, and any of the others in Howe’s text would have been more than happy to attend a women’s college as long as the quality of education could be guaranteed to meet the same standards as men’s education, (something of great importance to M. Carey Thomas). And besides, it helps to create a positive learning environment for everyone, regardless of gender, when there’s less mansplaining and more collaboration.

This post was created by Michelle Smith, soon to be a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and one of the students who regularly works in Special Collections.


I have gained the privilege of learning more about a topic that I knew little about beforehand…..

My name is Teddy Knauss, and like Lisa MacMurray and my other colleague Sam Perry, I am a student at Temple University studying Secondary Education – Social Studies. My experiences interning at The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, Byrn Mawr College so far have been enlightening and educational to say the least. In the process of creating a lesson plan pertaining to the history of women’s education in America, I have gained the privilege of learning more about a topic that I knew little about beforehand. I have enjoyed looking through various folders of primary documents to find writings and pictures of women who attended the Bryn Mawr Summer School, an innovative program to encourage working class women to gain experience of college life and education. As I have been doing this, I have found interesting photographs and writings that shed light on the various perspectives that these women workers had regarding education and school. Furthermore, it has been eye-opening to see the various perspectives of the minority women who attended Bryn Mawr College and how they grappled with the racism and prejudice that characterized that time period. All in all, this internship has helped me become more knowledgeable about a topic that I believe is important and in need of a closer look within high school history classes. It is my hope that the lesson plan I am creating will help high school students become more interested in the topic of women’s education.

The findings are fascinating!

My name is Lisa MacMurray and I am a student at Temple University studying Secondary Education – Social Studies.  This semester our Social Studies Methods class wanted Temple students to help fellow history institutions in showcasing the importance of National History Day to both teachers and students throughout the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania region.  Sam Perry (my classmate) and I interviewed with several institutions; however, we were thrilled to have been chosen to intern with Bryn Mawr College’s Greenfield Project and the study of women in education.  This is an area of history in which both Sam and I are very much interested.  Jennifer Redmond, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow and Project Director, The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, has been our mentor throughout the semester and has helped guide us through the research process.

Part of our research has been to get a clear understanding of how hard it was for women to achieve higher education in a college that was not simply a “finishing school” but one that would demand more from them and help expand their knowledge and intellect.  Additionally, Sam and I have been reviewing entrance examinations from the late 1800s through 1920 from several Seven Sister colleges, as well as, men’s Ivy League schools.  We started by comparing and contrasting the examinations between Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe and Wellesley.  Additionally, we have since looked at Yale, Harvard and University of Pennsylvania’s men’s colleges to compare their requirements to those of the women’s colleges.  The findings are fascinating!  The women colleges required just as much as the men’s colleges; yet, they were not allowed admittance to the men’s schools.  Originally, we focused on large segments of the examinations; however, since we are Secondary Education – Social Studies majors, we decided that the primary focus should be on the History/Geography sections of the examinations.  I have noticed that Bryn Mawr College has the hardest requirement with regard to History/Geography questions as compared to the other women’s colleges.  Bryn Mawr’s History/Geography sections are compatible with Yale and Harvard.  I could not compare University of Pennsylvania’s examination to Bryn Mawr as they had no examinations available for review, yet, we were able to gain much insight into the University of Pennsylvania’s discrimination against letting women into the university to earn a degree.

Now that our time at Bryn Mawr College is coming to a close, we will be making a lesson plan, along with test questions and, adding Bryn Mawr College’s entrance examination online so that teachers will be able to teach a lesson to their students to show how women did whatever they could to gain a higher education and, to have the students take the test so that they will see how difficult these examinations were.  For one, Bryn Mawr required perspective students taking the examination to have enough knowledge to be able to translate Greek, Latin, French, and German, along with extensive knowledge in the English language.  Students taking this examination online will most likely fail the test since they do not possess knowledge in all the language areas, let alone all the other content criteria that is included in the examination.  I also feel that teachers can give their students (both males and females) better insight into the challenges that women had to overcome in order to earn a college degree and that no matter the inequality, they overcame and endured and many became influential women in society.

I have enjoyed my time at Bryn Mawr College and I am going to miss Jennifer and the program.  I will begin Student Teaching in January so my time at Bryn Mawr will soon be finished; however, I have gained much knowledge during my internship and, if I have any available time, would love to help Jennifer with any other projects that the Canaday Library may be focusing on with regard to the Greenfield Digital Center.